Power Plant Men cherish few things more than Friday afternoon when they head out to the parking lot and the weekend officially begins. Coolers full of ice, a quick trip to the convenience store for some beer and they are ready for the next two days. That’s why when a suggestion was made that the Power Plant Men might have to start working on Saturdays as well, the idea was not well received.
The Maintenance Department at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma had downsized from 13 crews to 4 teams. We were struggling to figure out how to make that work. We had four teams and only seven electricians. Which meant that one team only had one electrician. Diane Brien was the lucky “one”. She was the only electrician on her team.
We were spread out so far already, how could we possibly cover an extra day of the week? Who (besides operators – who work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) would want to give up their Saturday to work straight time at the Power Plant. I mean…. we all loved our jobs (for the most part), but this was asking a lot.
We had learned from the last two downsizings and the the Quality Process that when the company hired consultants, things were going to change. We were convinced that consultants were hired to take the heat off of upper management. They could just say, “Well…. This is what the Consultants told us would work best, so we’re cutting our staff in half.”
So, when consultants were hired for over $100,000 to figure out how we could work an “alternate work schedule”, we were suspicious. Any of us could sit around and put two and two together to figure out a way to work alternate work schedules. This led us to believe that this was another attempt to force us into something by saying, “The Consultants….. (not us)….” Bringing to mind the phrase from Star Wars, Return of the Jedi; “Many Bothans Died for This Information.”
Picture this lady telling the Power Plant Men how they were going to work on Saturdays and they were going to like it. The phrase “T’ain’t No Way!” comes to mind. Here is how the meeting went….
We were called to the main break room, which doubled as the main conference room, and tripled as the Men’s Club Gathering Sanctuary. The consultants were introduced to a room of silent, glaring, suspicious Power Plant Men types. We were told that they had been working on alternate work schedules that we might possibly want to consider. No matter what, they were not going to force anything on us. We were told that we would only go on an alternate work schedule if we voted and the majority were okay with it.
Power Plant Men chins began to jut out in defiance. The rattle of someone’s dentures came from the back of the room. A nearly unanimous vote of “No” was already decided by about 90% of the people going by the the body language of the men in the room.
The consultants continued by saying that they had three alternatives that they would like to run by us. The first one was to provide coverage 7 days of the week. I think everyone in the room knew that there were only 7 days in a week, and this meant that they wanted the four maintenance crews to work every day of the week. Including Sundays, since we figured that Sunday must be included in the 7 days, since we couldn’t think of 7 days without including Sundays.
Currently, Sundays were double time. If Sunday became a regular work day, then the only double time would be during the night. You can see the reason why management wanted to increase our regular coverage to the weekend. It would eliminate a large amount of overtime. This isn’t a bad idea when you are trying to figure out how to save money.
The consultants (I’m probably going to begin a lot of paragraphs with the words… The consultants… for obvious reasons) said that the benefit of working on Sundays was that every 4 weeks we would get 6 days off of work in a row! What? How does that work? They showed us how it worked, but the majority was not in favor of working Sundays.
I personally thought that if we had to work on Sundays, then I was probably going to be looking for a new job somewhere else. I knew operators did this, but this was something that they had accepted up front when they became operators. Operators are a special breed of workers that dedicate their lives to the plant. Maintenance crews, though they are equally loyal, are not willing to give up a regular work habit. Even though I worked Sundays when an emergency came up without question, this day was normally reserved for going to Church and spending the day at home with my family. So, this was never going to be a long term option for me.
The options to work on Sundays meant that there was only one day each week (Thursday) when all four of the teams would be working on the same day. That would be the day when we would have plant-wide meetings, like the Monthly (or had it moved to Quarterly) Safety meetings.
There were two options that included Sundays. Neither of them were acceptable to the Power Plant Men. The third option was to cover Saturday. The consultants showed us how we could cover Saturday as a normal work day and every four weeks we could have 5 days off in a row. How is it, you ask, can you cover one extra day and you have more days off?
The Consultant’s answer: Work 4-10s (four tens). That is, work four ten hour days each week. When you work ten hour days for four days, you still work the same 40 hours each week, only you have to show up at the plant for four days instead of 5. This means, you have one extra day each week where you don’t even have to go to work.
Think about this… We normally arrived at the plant at 8:00 and left at 4:30 (8 hour day with a 30 minute lunch). We were being asked to come in at 7:00 and leave at 5:30. Two extra hours each day and you only have to work 4 days. The company will not only be covering a Saturday now, but they would be covering 10 hours each day instead of just 8. The dentures rattled again in the back of the room, only this time it was Bill Green’s (our plant manager)…. he was salivating at the prospect of covering an extra 20 hours each week (2 extra hours each week day and 10 hours on Saturday) by just shuffling around the work schedule. That’s 50% more coverage!
Think about this some more….. I only had to do laundry for four days of coal and fly ash soaked clothes instead of five. I only had to drive the 30 miles to the plant and the 30 miles back, four times each week instead of five. That reduces my gas by 20%. It also gives me an extra hour each week when I don’t have to drive to and from work… this comes out to 48 extra hours free each year (after subtracting vacation) for just not having to drive to work five times each week. More than an extra week’s worth of vacation. saved in driving time alone. I’ll tell you some more benefits after I show you how this worked….
The consultants explained the 4 – 10s covering a Saturday with four crews like this….. We worked on a four week cycle. Each week, each team was on a different week in the cycle. We all worked on Wednesday and Thursday. The rest of the days, there were less than 4 teams working… it worked like this….
If you are working on week 3 (Monday thru Thursday), after Thursday you don’t go back to work until next Wednesday! Five days off in a row without using any vacation!
Crazy huh? The only catch was that you had to work on a Saturday once every four weeks. But think about this…. (I seem to enjoy saying that in this post…. “think about this…”) I think it’s because the first thought is that this is dumb. Why would I want to work two extra hours each day? Why would I want to give up one of my Saturdays? Ok… while you’re thinking about that, I’ll move on to the next paragraph…
I suppose you realized by now that there are 13 Saturdays that each person would work in a 52 week year when you work a Saturday once every four weeks. Thinking about it that way isn’t so bad. Especially since the Power Plant Men had at least four weeks vacation (160 hours) by this time since the majority of the Power plant Men had been there for at least 10 years. Those with 20 years had 5 weeks vacation (200 hours). My fellow electrician Charles Foster said that to me as we were going back to work…. “I can just take vacation every time we have to work on Saturday.” — We’ll see….
With 10 hour days, that meant that if you have 4 weeks vacation, then you have 16 days off. You could take your Saturday off for vacation for the entire year, giving you 6 days off in a row every 4 weeks using only 10 hours of vacation, and you can avoid having to work any Saturdays (if that’s really what you want).
The Power Plant Men decided to give it a try to see how we liked it for a few months. The majority of us had mixed feelings about this new work schedule. The other thought in our mind was, “We paid over $100,000 for someone to come up with this? Maybe we’re in the wrong line of work.”
One problem with this plan is that we had to have an alternate carpooling schedule. Scott Hubbard and Fred Turner and I were not all on the same teams. So, we had to figure out when we were working on the same days and try to remember who drove the last time we had that particular configuration of carpoolers in order to figure out whose turn it was to drive. We figured something out that seemed to work… there were just a few times when the neighbors would hear… “No, it’s my turn! No! It’s mine! Remember last Friday? But that was you and Scott! No! I have it right here in my notes! Fred drove, we talked about Deer Stands and types of feeders. I nodded my head a lot.”
The first Saturday Charles Foster and I showed up to work, we noticed a great benefit right away. Our team was the only team working in the Maintenance Shop. That meant that we had all the trucks to ourselves! No fighting over truck keys! We didn’t have to wait in line at the tool room. No waiting around for Clearances on the equipment. We had full reign over the shop. We also had Sue Schritter go to Ponca City to pick up parts shortly before lunch so that she could bring back Pizza for us! (ok. yes. we were bribed with Pizza) Courtesy of our foreman, Alan Kramer:
We really enjoyed working on Saturday. It turned out to be the best day to work. No management stalk… um… walking around watching us from around corners…. No meetings… Just working away without interruption. We would complete a lot of work on Saturdays.
Another benefit that I don’t think was expected was a big reduction in Sick Leave. I no longer had to take off time to go to the doctor or the dentist. I now had days off during the week, so I would just schedule doctor appointments when I was not working.
Holidays were handled two ways. You still only had 8 hours off for a holiday instead of 10, so you had to work around that. When there was a holiday, you could either work four 8 hour days (instead of 10) that week and take off the holiday just as you normally would, or you could take off 8 hours just on the holiday, and either use 2 hours of vacation or come into work for 2 hours (2 hours vacation made the most sense).
When it was all said and done, the Power Plant Men stayed on 4-10s working every fourth Saturday at our plant. Other plants were able to decide on their own work schedules. I know one of the other plants decided they didn’t want to change. They still liked driving to work five days each week instead of four. They liked cleaning five days worth of dirty clothes each week instead of four. They liked having two days off each week instead of an average of three days. Maybe they didn’t know what they liked.
This brings to mind a book that I read once after reading another book recommended by Toby O’Brien. Toby gave me a book once called “One Minute Manager”.
One of the authors wrote another book called, “Who Moved My Cheese?” by Spencer Johnson, M.D. I encourage everyone to read this:
Reading books like these are a lot cheaper than hiring a consultant for boo-coos just to make changes. You just have “Power Plant Reading Time” during the morning meeting and read a chapter from this little book.
Mother’s Day came a week early for the men at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma in the year 2000. Instead of the scheduled May 14th Mother’s Day, the Power Plant Men gathered in the First Baptist Church in Pawnee Oklahoma to say goodbye to their Power Plant Mother Saturday, May 6, 2000. That was the day that Juliene Alley, our Power Plant Mother was laid to rest.
You might think that a woman welder spending her time at a Power Plant welding tubes in the dark insides of the boiler during overhaul, or crammed up inside a bowl mill where the air you breathe can be as hot as 160 degrees Fahrenheit would fit the image of a broad shouldered tough woman that you wouldn’t want to meet in an Alley at night. This in no way describes Juliene. If I had a picture of Juliene, you would see a woman of small stature with a slightly worn countenance and a humble but confident expression with a slight smile that had been etched permanently into her face from years of being content with whatever lot in life she had been dealt.
I am not able to say what her life was like before she arrived at the Power Plant in 1985 one week before her 34th birthday. I know she had one son named Joseph Alley and she had been married to a man named Red. For me, her life began when I first met her at the tool room waiting to get a tool from Bud Schoonover. She was being treated with extra care by her welding crew. They were very protective of her at first. My first impression was that she was kind and soft spoken.
I didn’t work around Juliene for quite a while. I don’t even remember if she had worked her way through the Labor Crew as we were required when I hired on at the plant. I worked with Juliene only after the last downsizing when we were on the same cross-functional team in 1994. By that time, the welders referred to Juliene as their “Mom”.
I never heard an unkind word come from Juliene. It may have happened immediately following a Power Plant Joke had been played on her, but since it never would have occurred to me to play a joke on her, I only ever heard kind words from Juliene. I’m sure her son Joe could tell us more about that. Juliene spent a lot of time working with Ed Shiever. They were about the same height and it seemed to me that the two of them were paired often to work the same jobs.
The title “Mom” wasn’t given to her as a ceremonial title just because of her gender. When I watched Juliene with the welders, I could see and hear that she treated each one of the welders as if she was really and truly their Mother. I have heard her scold them, put them in their places, and even calm them down when they needed to be put in “time out”.
Juliene did not die unexpectedly. She died from a failing liver that lasted over many months. It seems to me that her son Joe married his sweetheart Shauna a little earlier than intended so that it was in time for his Mother to attend the wedding in September 1999, eight months before she passed away. The last time I talked with Juliene was when someone at the plant had called her in the hospital in Oklahoma City from the tool room telephone. When I walked in the tool room to get a part, someone asked me if I wanted to speak with Juliene.
When I talked to her, I could tell that she was trying to be pleasant in spite of the knowledge that she only had about a week or two left. I told her I would be praying for her. She asked me if I knew where she could find a new liver. I think I said something like, “I don’t have a spare one myself, but these machinists here are pretty good, maybe we can have one of them whip one up real quick.”
I have mentioned one of Juliene’s sons, Joe. I have also mentioned Ed Shiever, who was a Power Plant Son to Juliene. Here are some of Juliene’s other Power Plant children:
With Ed Shiever, that makes over a dozen Power Plant Sons. I’m sure there are others. (If any others would like to be added, let me know, and if I have your pictures, I’ll post them here).
I attended Juliene’s funeral ceremony at the First Baptist Church in Pawnee on May 6, 2000. The church was crowded that day with Power Plant Men. Some had come from other Power Plants in the state to say goodbye to the Power Plant Mom we had all come to love. Her Power Plant Sons stood up front and said their departing words to Juliene and to share their memories.
I have said in one of my early Power Plant Posts that each time a True Power Plant Man or Woman left the Power Plant that the character of the Power Plant would change. The gift that Juliene Alley gave to the maintenance shop for many years was one of calm and civility. I watched the welders over the years, and some of them began their Power Plant career with a less than “savory” attitude about life. Over the years, I think the affect of having Juliene constantly in their lives tamed the welding shop to mold them into the respectable, caring, fine Power Plant Men that they became. When Juliene left us that day at the Church, she left her character behind in her Power Plant Sons.
In memory of their Power Plant Mother, no character was lost from the Power Plant the day Juliene departed to tend to other pastures. Eight months to the day of Juliene’s death on January 3, 2001, Joseph Edward Alley, her son, joined the ranks of Power Plant Men as he came to work at the Power Plant. The joy of having the actual son of Juliene working in the plant was a reflection of how much we all loved his Mother.
As you can see, Juliene’s family continues to grow. Tomorrow we will be celebrating Mother’s Day. Today, on Saturday, I remember back to Saturday May 6, 2000. The day we celebrated our Power Plant Mother’s Day a week early.
Sometimes we unknowingly end up worshiping things we never intend. It isn’t until those things are destroyed before we realize what has happened. We have a natural tendency to worship something. It’s built into our DNA to worship God just as sure as the God Particle converts energy into matter and subsequently atoms into earth and water. I’m not sure when my obsession began, but I definitely know the day when it was destroyed. August 5, 1996.
The day of realization began as a normal day, as Scott Hubbard and I were driving to the plant. It seemed like an extra dark morning considering it was the middle of the summer. Perhaps it was because by this time we were working four tens, which meant we arrived at the plant before 7:00 am so we left Stillwater, Oklahoma at 6:15 to drive to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
When we topped the overpass to the turnpike at 6:32 we thought we could see something strange at the Power Plant off in the distance. The sun was going to rise in the next few minutes (at 6:42), yet, the sky seemed darker than usual. It must have been a cloudy morning.
We thought we could see red and blue flashing lights coming from one end of the plant. It was only momentary, because once over the overpass, we were too low to see that section of the plant. We weren’t really sure what we had seen. It became even more confusing as we approached the entrance to the plant.
There seemed to be a little more activity happening at the front gate than usual. there was a guard or an operator standing out there. He waved us through the gate. about 300 yards past the main gate, we had a clear view of the plant grounds laying before us as we made our way to the parking lot. It was here that the significance of the flashing lights suddenly caused us to gasp. We were stunned into silence.
The area around the Unit 1 main power transformer was flashing with the red and blue lights of several fire trucks. They seemed to be pulling away just about that time. Some of the siding on the Turbine-Generator room was missing, some was blackened from smoke as it had poured out of the windows along the turbine room floor. The real shock to me came as we approached the parking lot and I looked up through where a window used to be and I could see the sky. I could see the sky where the T-G roof should have been.
We were directed to go into the maintenance garage to avoid the fire trucks who that were backing away. We met with our team and Alan Kramer told us that there had been an explosion during the night when an overspeed test was being performed on the Unit 1 Boiler Feed Pump Turbine (BFPT). The number one question we all wanted answered was quickly given to us…. No one was hurt in the explosion.
Alan mentioned that in our recent fire fighter training, we had learned that a large percentage of companies that have a major fire (such as ours) goes out of business within the next year. That was not going to happen to us even though the damage was extensive. Our job was to put everything back to the way it was before the fire.
Here is the story as it happened, as much as I know:
The explosion occurred when an operator (I’ll let one of the operators remind me who it was) was running an overspeed test on the BFPT. Suddenly he heard a loud pop and then the turbine winding up out of control. He took off running and was around the corner of a concrete pillar when the turbine exploded. The turning gear shot out like a top and flew across the mezzanine floor, hit the corner of the north stairway, and still spinning like a top, tore up the stairway as it made the turn halfway down and ended up in middle of the the T-G basement where it finally came to rest. This turning gear weighs somewhere in the ballpark of a thousand pounds (I’m guessing).
At this point steam was shooting out of the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine. The oil pumps that keep the bearings lubricated were spraying oil into the steam which burst into flames. The flames shot up to the concrete floor 40 feet above. The fire was so hot that it melted the metal structure holding up the floor and the rebar in the concrete. The Turbine Room Floor literally melted away as the oil fire shot the flames up toward the roof another 80 feet above the turbine room floor melting the roof as if it was butter. The asbestos siding on the T-G floor was falling off because the bolts that held them to the brackets literally melted away.
The same reservoir that feeds the oil to the the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine bearings also fed the Main Turbine Generator. This is the same generator that makes the electricity that causes the light bulb to glow in your house when you turn it on. The Main Turbine Generator tripped when the explosion occurred, as it should. As it slowed down to a stop, the oil for the bearings was all gone. It had been creating the large fire ball that was melting down the T-G floor.
Normally, when the Turbine-Generator comes to a stop, it is put on a turning gear while the shaft cools down otherwise the shaft will become warped under it’s own weight. The Turning gear slowing rotates the turbine for a day or so while it cools. Without bearing oil, the turning gear would not be able to turn the turbine generator. The bearings require a layer of oil to function properly.
Charles Patton, one of the Maintenance foremen was called out, and he took cans of STP Oil Treatment and for hours poured them onto the bearings and manually rotated the 50 ton turbine generator (Ray, help me out with the actual weights). Through the heroic efforts of Charles and others that were there to help, the Turbine Generator was spared from even more damage.
By the time we arrived that morning, the fire was out, things were cooling down. Unit 2 was still running, and it was our job to keep it going.
As I walked out onto the T-G floor everything went into slow motion. I don’t know if that has ever happened to you before. There have been a few times in my life when I was in a near death situation where my surroundings all seem to switch into a slow motion mode. I think it happens because your brain kicks into high gear in order to process what is happening and to put as much effort forward as possible to avoid danger.
The first time I think that happened to me was when I was with some friends climbing around on some cliffs by the Missouri River. One boy was falling back after the ledge he was on gave way and was going to fall most likely to his death when everything switched into slow motion even before I realized what was wrong. I was able to make quick decisions that allowed me to push him back onto the ledge and grab onto a branch that luckily kept me from the same fate.
When I walked onto the T-G floor and saw the devastation, I think my mind was trying to take everything in all at once. The Turbine Generator was covered in soot and debris. I flashed back to the days when I was a janitor and used to keep the turbines waxed so that they would shine. It was at this moment that I realized I actually worshiped the Turbine Generators in a way similar to the way the religious cult worshiped the alpha-omega doomsday bomb in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”.
The near destruction of the Turbine Generator made me realize the importance I had placed on it. I felt as if I had almost lost my close friend like the boy climbing on the cliff. I used to stand on the sides of the Turbines when I was a janitor with my dust mop and after spraying furniture polish on the mop, I would caress the turbines as if I was running my fingers through someone’s hair.
We began the clean up by taking fire hoses and washing down the siding on the Unit 2 side to try to bring some normalcy back to a surreal situation. The soot didn’t just wash off. Not long after we had dragged out the fire hoses and were blasting away at the siding, Alan Kramer asked Charles Foster and I to look at the air duct to the Instrument room on the north side of the Turbine room. The room was getting too hot and the air conditioner seemed to have frozen.
We climbed into the air duct on the roof of the instrument room and replaced the filters that were packed with soot stopping the air flow for the Air Conditioner. This seemed like one task in 100,000 that would need to be done to put this puzzle back together again. All the electric cables that ran through the Unit 1 Mezzanine had melted away, everything had been utterly destroyed.
The thought was too overwhelming. I felt like Scarlet O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind” when she said, “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.”
With everything on the T-G floor covered in soot, everyone was quickly black from head to toe. Are clothes were now black. We looked like Johnny Cash impersonators
literally with Al Jolsen Black Face as the soot was pitch black.
We had just climbed out of the air duct and were making our way to the electric shop when Glenn Rowland approached me and said, “You Lucky Dog!” I thought he must be making a comment about my appearance seeing how I was covered in soot. Then he explained. “For the next 10 weeks you have to report to Oklahoma City to work on an SAP project. You’re a lucky dog because you are going to miss all the fun of cleaning up this mess.”
Did I ever mention that I’m one of the luckiest people in the world? Well. I am. I had just come to grips with my false God, and now I had been rescued from two and a half months of working in soot and grime to go work in an air conditioned office building in Oklahoma City.
Now for the hard part of the story to write about:
So, why did the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine fail the overspeed test? What happened to cause the explosion?
The first attempt to place the blame where it didn’t belong was to blame Sonny Kendrick who had worked on the controls during the last outage. The same person that would accuse me of purposely causing any little opacity problem on the precipitator even when I was on vacation, was now blaming Sonny Kendrick for the multi-million dollar destruction of the Turbine Room Floor.
Sonny Kendrick must have looked like an easy target. A soft-spoken man that works alone most of the time. No one really understands some of the things he works on. Maybe they thought he wouldn’t be able to explain the changes he had made to the controls in enough detail in order to blame him for the explosion. I use the word “target” because someone else had to be “blamed” for the explosion than the person responsible. The person they picked as the “fall guy” was Sonny Kendrick:
You see… someone was directly responsible for the explosion. Someone who continuously used “Risk Management” as an excuse to cut corners. I wonder if everything was completely on the unconscious level, or did this person ever realize the impact of his decisions. You see, I haven’t completely decided.
There appears to have been a conspiracy to cover up the truth about the explosion that took three months to recover. The first clue was to try to blame Sonny Kendrick without any proof. I don’t know if Sonny was eventually cleared as the fall guy because he was able to clearly show how all of his wiring changes had no impact on an overspeed test, or someone who knew about the actual cause threatened to come out with the truth if they continued to pursue Sonny as the fall guy. You see… there was more to this equipment failure than met the eye.
The turbine exploded because the coupling to the pump shattered. That’s the part that connects the steam turbine to the boiler feed pump. When the coupling broke the turbine, no longer having any resistance, began to rotate at a rate much faster than it was ever designed to rotate until it flew apart.
It was known at the end of the last outage that the coupling was damaged. It would have delayed bringing the unit online another 2 or 3 days in order change out the coupling. In the name of “Risk Management” it was decided to “risk it” until the next outage. The decision was made without using any type of risk assessment tool… obviously.
I know about the conversations that took place because one of the people involved confided in me. The person that told me the details of the conversations said that even under oath he would never tell anyone else the truth. This is the second clue that made me think that a concerted effort was made to cover up the knowledge that it was known that a faulty coupling was operating on the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine and it had been decided to leave it in place. You see… everyone who was on the team that found the damage knew about it.
The third clue this was a “conspiracy to cover up the truth” was that when an investigation was performed to look into the cause of the explosion, the person responsible for keeping the bad coupling in place played a major role in the investigation. Like the Fox guarding the Hen House.
Because the truth about the coupling never came to light, the insurance company ended up paying the entire bill for the outage. It was ruled as “equipment failure”. Our plant manager Bill Green remarked one day that we actually came out ahead when the insurance company paid for the outage, because they paid our lost revenue without taking all the operating costs into account.
I know sometimes that things just happen and sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes when everything is done correctly, something still goes wrong. I know that. That is why when this explosion first happened it made me step back and think twice about the dangers lurking around a Power Plant. A tremendously large amount of energy is being converted from coal into electricity. Somewhere, some time, something is going to go wrong and someone is going to be hurt or killed.
That is also why when this explosion happened, it never occurred to me to place the blame on anyone. To me it was just one of those things that happens every now and then. My bubble of innocence was burst the day I heard about the decision to keep a defective coupling in place on such an important piece of equipment.
On one hand I was angry that someone would make a decision that could have ended with the death of an operator, on the other hand, I was relieved to know that accidents like this don’t just happen. It was only when someone decided to cut corners that this explosion occurred. It gave me a little of my faith back in the system. When things are done right, we can work safely without the fear that something is likely to explode in our face.
All right, so I never really worshiped the Turbine Generator. I just exaggerated that part a bit. But let me ask this question… Who in this story did? Who was it that was willing to sacrifice the life of an operator to keep from delaying the “go-live”? Who thought that having the Generator produce electricity two or three days sooner than it should have been was more important? That is the person that really needs to re-evaluate their priorities and take another look at which God they worship.
The question is never, “Is there a God?” The real question is “Which God do you worship?”
August 6, 1996 in Corporate Headquarters America, jaws began dropping a few minutes before 8 a.m. At first the security guard just thought some Power Plant Giant had taken a wrong turn and showed up at Corporate Headquarters to ask for directions. When another one showed up, this time carrying his Playmate lunch box, hard hat on his head, and lip quivering looking for a handy spittoon, the men in their suits and women in their fine dresses began running for cover. That was the day eight Power Plant Men took over the floor in the building where the Corporate Engineers usually lived.
If you want to understand the shock that emanated throughout the building, just picture the following bunch showing up on your doorstep:
We had come from the four corners of the Oklahoma Electric Company Power Plant Kingdom and we were there in Oklahoma City because Corporate America needed our help! Two Power Plant Men from each of the main Power Plants were picked to help the company transition from the old Mainframe computer system to a new computer application called SAP. SAP was going to combine all of our computer needs into one big application that runs on the new computer network.
Ernst and Young was the consulting company that was helping us install and implement SAP at our company. The company began the implementation some time in March, and the big bang go live date was going to be January 1, 1997. According to Ernst and Young, this was a physical impossibility. There was no way we could convert all of our requirements into SAP realities in such a short time.
The Maintenance Module for SAP hadn’t even been fully developed. We were actually working with SAP to design the module. Our company had demonstrated how a Best In Class Maintenance process worked, and SAP was designing their module around our needs. Everyone insisted that our aggressive timeline was too unreasonable and would never be met.
The Electric Company in Central Oklahoma had one Ace up their sleeve (well, maybe more than one)… That was “Power Plant Men!” As I mentioned in last week’s post (See the post “Destruction of a Power Plant God“), I was told on Monday, August 5, to show up for work the following day in Oklahoma City to work for 10 weeks on an SAP project.
Mike Gibbs, a mechanic from our plant was going with me. Our task was to convert all the Power Plant parts in the Inventory system in searchable strings that had a limited number of characters. Mike Gibbs used to work in the warehouse, so he was a good candidate for knowing what odd parts actually were.
We were a cross-section of mechanics and electricians, and warehouse people. To give you an idea of how big our job was, we had over 100,000 different parts in the system. 75,000 of those parts were in the warehouse at the power plant where I worked. There were over 5,000 different types of Nuts and Bolts… just to give you an idea of the task ahead of us.
Ernst and Young said the task would take the eight regular employees four months to complete the task. The Electric Company said, “Power Plant Men can do it in 10 weeks.
We were able to use the office space used by all of the engineers because they all happened to be at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma where I normally worked because of the big explosion that destroyed part of the Turbine Generator room early Monday morning. While they packed up to begin the work of reconstruction, Mike and I packed up and headed to Oklahoma City.
Most of the “out-of-town” Power Plant Men stayed in hotels for the next 2 1/2 months, but Mike Gibbs and I decided that we couldn’t be away from our families that long, so we decided that we would drive back and forth to work each day from Stillwater, Oklahoma. This was about an hour drive with going to work traffic. We would meet in the parking lot of a Mexican Restaurant at the edge of town and take turns each day driving to Oklahoma City.
Normally, in an instance like this, we would get paid a mileage that was farther than if we drove to the plant and maybe even driving time to and from work each day, but when our Plant Manager Bill Green found out we were driving back and forth, he refused to pay us anything. He told us that it was far enough away that he would only pay for us to stay in a Hotel (which would have cost more than the mileage), he wouldn’t pay us mileage or even a per diem (which is a daily amount for expenses).
Bill Green knew that we were family men that wouldn’t want to be away from our families during the week if it was only an hour drive, so he played his card and said that we had to stay in a hotel, and he would pay the expense for that or he would pay nothing and we could drive back and forth all we wanted at our own expense, already knowing that we would rather wear our cars out and pay the extra gas each day to be with our families. I just thought this was pay back for me being so rotten all the time.
The first week I was there, I worked on converting the 5,000 different nuts, bolts and screws into cryptic search strings that all began with the three letter search word for bolt: BLT. If you wanted to search for a Bolt in the SAP inventory, you would know it begins with a the letters BLT. This only made me hungry all week, because to me, a BLT was a sandwich. A mighty good one too, I may add.
After the first week, it was decided that having Power Plant Men roaming around between offices asking each other questions about parts was a hazard waiting to happen, so the engineer that was running our project Mark Romano had a special holding pen… um… I mean, cubicle built just for us. It was decided that we should all be together in what is called a “Bullpen Cube”. All nine of us. Bullpen was a good name considering that there was a lot of bull going around for all of us.
There were nine, because a young Corporate executive had been assigned to help us with all things “Corporate”. His name is Kent Norris. He was lucky enough to stay behind to work with us, instead of having to go spend the next 2 1/2 months at our plant up north helping to repair the fire damage.
Well. I say lucky. Lucky for us, maybe not for him. After all, he was someone from “corporate” stuck in a cubicle with 8 rascally Power Plant Men that kept themselves motivated by playing practical jokes on whoever was willing to fall for them. Not ever having experienced the likes of us before, Kent was in for 2 1/2 months of relentless practical jokes being played at his expense.
I must say that we had a terrific time teasing poor Kent, but he was such fun and took our jokes so well, that we could only admire his resilience to bounce back and smile after we ran him ragged with one joke after the next. I will go into more detail about the jokes we played on Kent in a later post. For now, I am just mentioning our situation, so that you can get a picture of our situation.
Kent helped us with our expense reports each week, and showed us all the good places to eat lunch. He helped us adapt to corporate life. He even showed us how to use our temporary badges to badge in and out of the doors when we entered and left the building.
Mike Gibbs discovered a better way. He just put his badge in his wallet, and since he was tall enough, when he walked up to the badge reader, he just pressed the back pocket of his blue jeans against the badge reader, and voila! The door would open like magic! Onlookers were always staring at this strange assortment of men in blue jeans and tee shirts walking through the office building during lunch.
I tried to remember all the people that were there in the cube with us… I remember that I was there, and so was Mike Gibb from the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
Ken Scott, who was the Maintenance Superintendent at the Gas-fired Power Plant by Konawa, and David Roe who worked in the warehouse at that plant.
Doyle Fullen, an Electric Foreman from the coal fired plant in Muskogee, and Robert Christy, a mechanic also from that plant.
I believe Dan Hayer, the warehouse man, was there from the gas-fired plant in Harrah, Oklahoma on a small lake called Horseshoe Lake. I don’t remember who else was there from that plant. I remember seeing someone there, but I think he was a more of a quiet type and for some reason, his name has escaped me.
I was a sort of a computer programmer at this time, so I created small programs that would make our jobs easier. I created icons on the computers so that people didn’t have to log into the apps, and I created a couple of other small programs that just automated the monotonous manual steps that we would have to do over and over again as we plowed through the 100,000 different part descriptions.
After the first week, we had converted over 15,000 parts, and were on our way to meeting our goal.
So, how did we do? The Power Plant Men were able to convert all 100,000 parts in the inventory system to SAP in eight weeks! Two weeks ahead of schedule. This was typical for Power Plant Men, especially when you tell them it is impossible. This was another example of doing things that others said couldn’t be done.
We were all scheduled to go back to our home plants two weeks early when Mark Romano, our project manager came to our cube to give us the news… We had performed our job so well, they wanted to expand our scope. It seems that another department… I won’t mention which one, but their initials are T&D had been working on their measly 60,000 parts for the past 4 months and had only completed about 10,000 of them. They wanted to know if the Power Plant Men would be willing to give them a hand to convert the 50,000 parts in their inventory system the same way we did for Power Supply. Otherwise the go-live of January 1, would not be met since we were coming up to the end of September already.
Our Plant Managers had agreed that we could spend the next four weeks converting T&D’s parts as well, so of course, we agreed to stay on. I’m not sure if Corporate Headquarters was ever the same after that. Because we were able to stay on for the next four weeks, we were invited to an SAP banquet that we would have otherwise missed. We stood out like a sore thumb. I will write more about that banquet in a separate post as well as go into detail with some of the jokes that we played on Kent Norris.
Spending the 12 weeks in Corporate Headquarters was an important turning point in my career as a Power Plant Electrician. When we were in the bullpen cube, I was sitting in a chair where I could turn my head to the right and look out a window over the parking lot for the building. During the day I would watch people walking to-and-fro going about their business.
I had worked most of my adult life up to that point at a plant out in the country where when you climbed to the top of the 500 foot smoke stack and looked around, you could see fields and trees for 20 miles in any direction. Looking out that window at people made a big impression on me. Here I was sitting in an air conditioned office. No Coal Dust. No Fly Ash. No ear plugs to deafen the sound of steam shooting through the pipes turning the turbines. No 100 degrees in the summer. No freezing my fingers off in the winter. Just Power Plant Men quietly tapping on their computer keyboards, while they played jokes on Corporate Executive Kent. — This was the life.
I thought… things don’t get better than this. I was in computer heaven. Even though it was unconscious at the time, something stirred in me that thought… maybe… just maybe, I’m ready for a change…. I’ll wait and see what God wants me to do…
I wonder if Kent Norris felt proud when his boss Wayne Beasley told him that he was being assigned to manage the eight Power Plant Men that were coming to Corporate Headquarters for the next 10 weeks to help prepare for the transition to SAP. I’m sure he had no idea what he was signing up to do. For the next 12 weeks, Kent bravely endured one torture after the other.
Kent Norris was a young Corporate Executive working for the Electric Company in Central Oklahoma when the Power Plant Men showed up at his doorstep August 6, 1996. I wish I had a picture of Kent (Kent… I know you read this blog… if you send me your picture, I’ll add it to this post), because then you could see right away that he would be the perfect person for playing jokes. Just like Gene Day back at the Coal-fired Power Plant where I worked.
See, you can tell by Gene Day’s expression that this guy was just right for Power Plant Jokes. Kent Norris was much like Gene in this respect, and the best part was that he was young and wasn’t from a plant, so he had never experienced the Power Plant Lifestyle of perpetual joke playing (see the post “Power Plant Humor and Joking with Gene Day“).
At the plant, Power Plant jokes are such a way of life that they include a section on the timecard to enter the number of Power Plant Jokes performed during the day, along with how many were successfully implemented. This was used to create a PPJ (for Power Plant Joke) Quotient that would go on your performance appraisal each year. That way you could set your stretch goals for the following year.
I explained last week why the eight of us were at Corporate Headquarters in the post: “Do Power Plant Men and Corporate Headquarters Mix?” so I won’t go into that much here other than to say that we were working for 10 weeks preparing the Inventory module in SAP so that our company would be prepared to go live with SAP on January 1, 1997. SAP is an ERP or Enterprise Resource Planning System.
Once all 9 of us were sitting in one cube, (eight Power Plant Men, and one young Corporate Executive, Kent Norris), that was when the opportunity for Power Plant Jokes began to take shape. Kent sat at the table in the middle of the cube next to the telephone.
Most of the Power Plant Men had their backs to each other as they all faced the edge of the cube. This way, a person walking into the cube could easily see the computer monitors. I sat on the end of a table at the end of the elongated cube where I could watch everyone and no one could see my monitor (and incidentally, I had a great view of the outside world).
At first we began our harassm….uh… I mean… jokes…. on Kent by easing him into it with very simple things… When he would step out of his cube, we would do little things like put water in his pen cap so that when he went to write something down and removed the cap, water would spill on him.
Other minor pranks were things like, unplugging the keyboard and mouse from the computer so that Kent would think that his computer had locked up. He tried rebooting his computer and for five minutes couldn’t figure out how to fix his computer until he found that the mouse and keyboard were unplugged, at which point, several muffled chuckles could be heard emanating from the far corners of the cube… Not from me, because I had learned the fine art of keeping a straight face in the midst of a hilarious power plant joke — after years of training.
Kent was so good at having jokes played on him that I think he enjoyed them as much as we did. He would respond with phrases like “You guys!!! Geez!” The Power Plant Men were so fast at implementing jokes on the fly that all Kent had to do was turn around to talk to someone that had come to ask a question and all the wheels on his chair would be removed and hidden in various locations throughout the cube.
Ken Scott was the Supervisor of Maintenance at the Seminole Plant, who I had worked with at our plant since I first showed up as a new summer help. He knew I was a trouble causer from day one. I wondered how he was going to take our constant jokes with Kent, but he helped out with the rest of us, and when Kent would run off to tell his friend Rita Wing (I think that was her name) about a new joke we had just played on him, Ken Scott would break out of his straight “uninterested” expression into a big smile and laugh out loud.
Mike Gibbs and I would evaluate the day’s jokes on the way home each day. We were carpooling from Stillwater.
The jokes became more elaborate over time, and I was reaching out to others beyond our cube to help out. At the time, we were using Windows 3.2 which had small program called “Windows Popup” (I believe the file name was popup.exe). It was sort of an old version of IMing someone before chatting was really common. I taught our team how to use it, so that we could pop up messages on each other’s computers to coordinate our jokes while we were doing our work without having to even look at each other.
Popup means so many things now that we all use Internet Browsers. “Windows Popup” allowed you to locate someone logged into the network, and pop a message right up in the middle of their screen. It would include the logon name of the person popping it up. My logon name on the computer system was BREAZIKJ. The popup message would say Message from BREAZIKJ in the title bar, and it would display the message. Here is an example I found on Google Images:
I had noticed that Kent often talked to the admin for Dennis Dunkelgod, a manager over the Telecommunications team.
I had worked with Dennis a couple of times running telephone cable at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma when we needed to install the computer network. I sent a Popup message to his admin asking her if she would help us play a joke on Kent. The message was something like this…. “We are going to play a joke on Kent Norris and were wondering if you would like to help us out.”
The young lady admin didn’t know what to think when this message popped up in the middle of her computer screen, though she knew where it came from because our cube was just across the aisle from her. She took a print screen of the message and gave it to Dennis.
Dennis, not knowing the ways of Power Plant Men didn’t know what I meant by “joke” and thought we might be planning something inappropriate. So he came to our cube and asked who was this person BREAZIKJ. I told him I was Kevin. He asked me if I had sent that message. I told him that I had sent it. (In trouble again… as usual). As Dennis was replying Kent Norris walked into the cube and saw Dennis dressing me down. He was saying that things like this did not belong in the workplace and he didn’t want to hear about this again! I replied, “all right.”
Dennis left the cube, and Kent asked what was going on, so I said, “We were planning on playing a joke on you, and so I asked the admin sitting over there if she would like to help us out and it upset Dennis.” Kent knew that Dennis was just looking out for him, so he explained that to us that Dennis misunderstood our intention.
One joke I played on Kent was this… Since he always answered the phone in our cube, I found a way to connect to a modem on the mainframe and dial out of the company (thanks Craig Henry for the tip), and then dial back in again and ring a phone…. So, I would wait until Kent hung up from the phone, which was just one second after he would say “Toodles” (which was Kent’s way of saying goodbye), then I would ring the phone and hang it back up.
Kent would answer the phone with his regular telephone answering phrase that I don’t quite remember, but it was something like, “Kent Norris, how may I help you?” only more interesting than that. When he answered the phone the first time, he was surprised to find that no one was on the phone. He hung it up and said, “That’s odd.” Then throughout the week, at various times, just as Kent hung up the phone from a conversation, I would ring his phone again.
Kent began troubleshooting it… he noticed that the ring indicated that it was an outside number calling, but it seemed like the phone was malfunctioning, so he created a trouble ticket to have someone look into it. Of course, the phone was working fine.
One day, Toby O’Brien came to my cube to ask me if I could tell him how I would do a root cause analysis on a particular accident. Toby was working for the safety department at the time.
I was showing him on the computer how I would make a hierarchy of causes and how each cause could be caused by something else, making something that looks like an organizational chart of causes. While I was talking to him, Toby was looking over my shoulder at the computer screen. Kent was talking on the phone… As I was talking to Toby, I was also listening to Kent’s conversation and I could tell he was wrapping it up, and I wanted to ring the phone.
So, as I continued talking along with Toby, I opened up the program I had configured to ring the phone and had it all ready to click the button when Kent said “Toodles”. I could tell that Toby was a little confused by my talking to him while I was opening another program and acting oblivious to it. Still explaining to Toby as if nothing was happening I hit the call button just as Kent hung up the phone, and it immediately rang. As Kent picked it up, I hung up and closed the program. Kent said, “Hello this is Kent Norris….. Damn! Kevin!” as he slammed the receiver back down on the phone. For some reason Kent thought I was doing something, though, he couldn’t figure out what. I just gave him a confused look.
At this point I heard a chuckle from Toby, he had a grin much like his picture above. I couldn’t hold it in much longer as my stomach was beginning to quiver and my body was shaking. So I slunk down in my chair so Kent couldn’t see the smile on my face and put my hand over my eyes to try and concentrate on making a straight face again. I squeaked out “…and that’s how I would do the root cause analysis on that accident.”
The climax of the Telephone joke was when one day, I set the program up for redial and left to go to the bathroom. The phone kept calling Kent once every minute. When I returned to the cube, Kent said, “Kevin! Stop ringing my phone!” I said, “I just went to the bathroom! How could I be ringing your phone?” At that point the phone rang and Kent said, “Pick it up!” I picked it up and listened, and said, “There’s nobody there. But you can’t blame me for that.” Then I returned to my computer and turned off the program and didn’t call him anymore after that.
The most elaborate joke played on Kent began when one day Kent made the statement that he had never been to a Power Plant and no desire in the world to ever visit a Power Plant! I think someone had asked him if he had seen the control room at one of the plants and that was his response. So, when an opening for an operator came up at our plant, we told Kent that we had sent in his application for the Operator job at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
Kent didn’t believe us of course, he thought this was just another little joke we were playing. We told him that we put all the right things in the application so that he was sure to get the job. Even though he would tell us that he didn’t believe us, we could see the small hint of doubt on his face, which made it a successful small joke… but this was only the beginning.
A couple of weeks later, Kent received word that since all the engineers were up at our plant in North Central Oklahoma they were going to hold their monthly safety meeting there and Kent and Rita were going to have to drive up to the plant to attend. Which meant, Kent didn’t have a choice, he was going to have to visit the plant after all. What Kent didn’t know was that his boss Wayne Beasley had been updated by Ken Scott about what we had told Kent about applying him for the operations job at the plant.
We told Kent that the real reason Wayne was having the meeting at the plant was so that Kent would be able to have his interview for the operations job, because they had accepted his application. Of course… again… he thought we were just kidding him since he said he had no desire to even visit a plant in his life.
Using Windows Popup (since IM wasn’t around yet), I sent messages to Denise Anson, the receptionist at the plant telling her about our plan with Kent. When Kent and Rita drove up to the main gate at the plant and said that it was Kent Norris and Rita Wing from Corporate Headquarters, Denise replied with, “Oh yes. Kent Norris. You have an interview for the operator position.” Kent said something like, “No, I’m just going to a safety meeting.” At this point, he couldn’t believe that the joke had actually reached the plant.
Denise messaged me using Windows Popup that he had just entered the gate…. I sent a popup to Ron Madron, who was going to ride up in the elevator with him letting him know that Kent was on his way to the parking lot…. When Kent and Rita entered the building and stood at the elevator, Ron Madron entered from the Maintenance Shop and entered the elevator with Kent and Rita. Ron asked who they were and when Kent told Ron who he was, Ron replied with “Oh! You’re the new operator! Good to meet you!” Kent could not believe that we had involved yet another person in our joke…
Ken Scott told me that he had talked to Wayne Beasley, Kent’s manager who was holding the safety meeting. Here is his LinkedIn picture:
Wayne had told Ken that he was going to make an announcement during the Safety Meeting that Kent Norris was going to soon begin working at the plant as their new operator. I messaged to Denise to ask her where Bill Green, the Plant Manager was because I wanted to fill him in on the plan. Denise told me he was in Wayne Beasley’s Safety Meeting.
I asked her if she could go get him out of the meeting because I needed to talk to him right away. So, she went and interrupted the safety meeting to tell Bill that I was on the phone and needed to talk to him. When Bill answered, I told him about the elaborate joke we had been playing on Kent Norris and how Wayne Beasley was going to announce in the meeting that Kent Norris was going to become an operator at the plant. Bill said thanks for letting him know because if he didn’t know it was a joke, he might have been upset if Wayne said that without him knowing it was coming…..
So, here is what happened in the safety meeting….. As the meeting was coming to a close, Bill Green, the Plant Manager, stood up and said, “We would all like to welcome Kent Norris at our plant and hope that he will enjoy coming to work for us as an operator.” — The perfect execution of a power plant joke after weeks of preparation, it was executed flawlessly.
Later that afternoon when Kent came back to our cube at Corporate Headquarters, he said that was the greatest joke ever! He couldn’t believe how we had everyone involved up to the plant manager. We were all glad that it went off without a hitch. We were also glad that Kent had enjoyed it so much. He said that it wasn’t until he walked in the control room and they didn’t know who he was that he felt sure that he really wasn’t going to be an operator at the plant.
The joke where I laughed the hardest was during the last week working at Corporate Headquarters. Wayne Beasley had come back from our plant to work where he normally worked, and he wanted to take our team out to lunch with Kent to congratulate us for doing such a good job. So, they picked a Mexican restaurant in Bricktown just east of downtown Oklahoma City.
When we walked into the restaurant, Doyle Fullen, the Plant foreman and electrician from Muskogee told the waiter that it was Kent Norris’s birthday. He told them that he was very shy and would deny that it was his birthday, but we were all bringing him out to lunch because we were celebrating it. So, toward the end of the meal, out came the group of waiters singing Felice Navidad carrying a huge Sombrero. Which they placed on Kent’s head!
We all sang Felice Navidad at the top of our lungs and clapped and laughed. I laughed so hard at Kent’s culmination of Power Plant Jokes! Rarely in my life have I laughed so hard as Kent stood there under this huge sombrero looking humiliated and at the same time proud to be so well loved by the Power Plant Men!
The week ended on Friday afternoon around 3pm, as each of us started leaving one at a time to drive back home for the last time. Doyle and Bob Christy left first because they had the farthest to drive. the rest of us left some time later. Each saying goodbye to Kent a couple at a time…. until Kent was left sitting in the bullpen cube all by himself. Thinking…. “I’m finally rid of these bozos!”
Unknown to Kent, the majority of us didn’t exactly leave the building… instead we each went into the bathroom where I was the last to enter….. I carried a bag that was full of 12 cans of various colors of Silly String:
Once everyone was ready, we snuck up to the side of the cube where we could hear Kent typing on a computer and with all 12 cans the six of us left sprayed silly string over the cube totally covering Kent in Silly String. That was our last goodbye. We couldn’t leave without one more Power Plant Man Joke!
A week or two after I returned to the plant, I received the following letter through Intra-Company mail:
For years after, and up to today, I consider Kent Norris a dear friend. One day when I was at the Stillwater Public Library during their yearly book sale, I found a book that I just had to buy for Kent. It was perfect! I sent it by intra-company mail. Kent thanked me for it…. I figured it would remind him of the time he spent trying to Corral a passel of Power Plant Men! Oh… here is a picture of the book:
When I first became an electrician at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, my foreman Charles Foster and I would sit each day at lunch and talk about movies we had seen. We would go into detail explaining each scene to each other so that when I actually watched a movie that Charles had described, I felt as if I had seen it already. In the years that followed, after we had described to each other just about every movie we could remember, we moved on to playing games.
Sure, there were those jokes we would play now and then, but I’m not talking about those. This was something different. One of the games that we played was Chess.
I brought a computerized chessboard to work one day that had pieces on a board that you pressed down when you wanted to move a piece, then you moved it and pressed down on the square where you placed the piece in order for the board to keep track where all the pieces were on the board.
This chessboard had 8 levels of difficulty when you played against the computer. Charles, Terry Blevins, Scott Hubbard and I were not really the competitive type. We were more of the team player types. So, when we played, we played against the computer as a team.
We would set the level of difficulty to the highest level, then as a team, we would spend a long time analyzing our moves. Sometimes we would discuss making our next move over several days. Actually, at the highest level, the computer would some times take up to 7 hours to decide what move to make. — This was when computers were still relatively slow.
We figured out that at level 8, the chessboard would think of all the possibilities for the next 8 moves. Once we realized that, then we knew that we had to think 9 moves ahead in order to beat it. So, you could see how together we would try several strategies that would put us ahead after we had basically forced the computer to make 9 moves… It wasn’t easy, but by realizing what we were dealing with, we were able to beat the chess computer on the highest level.
The game where we beat the computer on the highest level took us over 3 months to play and 72 turns. The four of us had teamed up against the computer in order to beat it. I remember that I would wake up in the morning dreaming about that game of chess when we were playing it and I would be anxious to go into the electric shop to try out a move that had popped in my mind when I was in the shower.
Once we were able to beat the chess board we went on to other things.
Diana Brien (my first and only “Bucket Buddy”) and I would buy Crossword puzzle magazines and when we were in a spot where we were waiting for an operator to arrive, or for a pump to finish pumping, etc.
We would pull out the crossword puzzle magazine and start working on them. If we weren’t doing crossword puzzles, we were doing Word Searches, or Cryptograms… more on them in a moment.
This kept our mine sharp, and just as Fat Albert and Cosby Kids used to say, “If you’re not careful, you might learn something before you’re through.”
I had bought some Crossword puzzles that had other types of puzzles in them. Some were pretty straightforward like Cryptograms. That is where you have a phrase where each letter of the alphabet has been changed to another letter of the alphabet, and you have to figure out what it says. So, for instance, an “A” may have been changed to a “D” and a “B” to a “Z” etc. So, you end up with a sentence or two that looks like gibberish, but it actually means something once you solve the puzzle.
The cryptogram magazine I copied for the picture isn’t complete because of the green rectangle is blocking out part of it, but I can see that it says: Everyone wants to “understand” art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird? (Pablo Picasso).
We were becoming expert cryptogram puzzle solvers, when one day we ran into a short cryptogram that didn’t have many words. We tried solving this cryptogram for almost a week. Scott Hubbard was getting frustrated with me, because I would never give up and look at the answer in the back of the book. So, after he became so fed up with me, he finally looked in the back of the book and wrote the answer in the puzzle. The answer was this: “Red breasted Robin, Harbinger of Spring”
Now… how is someone supposed to figure out a puzzle like that? I had figured on the “ing” in Spring and Harbinger but since Harbinger was barely in my vocabulary to begin with, I was never going to solve this one… I’ll have to admit.
Regardless, I was upset with Scott for looking at the answer in the back of the magazine, so I ripped out all the answers from the magazine and threw them in the dumpster so we would never be able to look at them again….. Still…. I would probably be trying to figure out “Red breasted Robin, Harbinger of Spring” to this day if Scott Hubbard hadn’t looked in the back of the book. I just felt like I wasn’t getting my money’s worth if we looked at the answers…. Yeah. all $3.95 worth (pretty cheap entertainment).
So, I have a side story to go along with working Cryptograms….
In my later life I changed jobs and went to work at Dell in Texas. (It just so happened that the Puzzle Books we would buy were usually “Dell” puzzle books…. totally unrelated to the Dell Computer company where I worked). That’s not really the important part of the side story, but I thought I would throw that in for good measure.
Every so often, our department would have an offsite where some team building events were held in order to… well… build teams.
One particular team building event was held in a park in Round Rock Texas where we were assigned to teams and each team was assigned to their own picnic table. When the game began we were each given a poster board with some phrase on it… and guess what? It was a cryptogram!
I was the only person on my team that knew how cryptograms worked, though most had seen them in the newspaper below the crossword puzzle, no one on our team had ever tried solving them. As a team, we were supposed to solve the puzzle. The quote was fairly long, which made it easy for someone who had been obsessed with cryptograms for years…. — Myself.
I took one look at the puzzle and said…. “That word right there is “that” and I wrote in the word “that”. Then I began filling in all the letters that had “T”, “H” and “A”. I quickly found a couple of “The”s which gave me the “E”, then I had one three letter word that began with an “A” and ended with an “E” that could only be the word “Are”. Which gave me the letter “R”. I could see that there were a couple of places that ended in “ing”, so I quickly filled those in, and as quickly as we could write all the letters into the puzzle we were done.
My director, Diane Keating, happened to be on my team. When I first pointed to the word “That” and said, “That is the word ‘that'”, she said, “Wait, how can you tell?” I said, “Trust me. I know Cryptograms.” When we had finished the puzzle within about a minute and a half, we called the person over to check it and she was amazed that we had solved the puzzle so quickly.
That is the end of the side story, except to say that I give credit to the games that Power Plant Men Play for teaching me the fine art of solving Cryptograms. Our team came in first place…. needless to say after solving three cryptograms in a row.
There were other more complicated but equally fun types of anagram/cryptogram combination puzzles that I worked when we had worked all the cryptogram puzzles in the Dell Variety Magazines. Eventually Charles Foster and I were looking for something different. That was when Charles ordered a subscription to a magazine called “GAMES”.
This was a monthly magazine that was full of all sorts of new games. Today, I understand that this magazine is more about the Video Games that are out than puzzle sort of games. Each month we would scour the pages of the Game magazine looking for puzzles to conquer. We worked on those for about a year.
At one point in my days as an electrician, I wrote a Battleship game for my Sharp Calculator that was a two player game. We each had a battleship in a 100 x 100 grid, which you could move around. It was sort of like the Battleship game where on the commercial they would say, “You Sunk My Battleship!” Only, our ships could move and we only had one.
Each turn when you would plug in the coordinates to shoot at the other person’s ship, it would only tell you how much you missed by. Then you could plot it on a graph paper and try to figure out where the other person’s ship was. Even though it could move. If you were close, then it would damage the other ship, and it would slow down so it couldn’t move as fast.
When the next person took their turn, they could see if their ship had been damaged or sunk, or even had become dead in the water….
The person was randomly assigned a home base at the beginning of the game and they could go there to repair their ship and be given more ammo in case they were running low. If they did this more than twice, then the other guy would know because the circles they would draw on their graph paper would keep intersecting at that one point.
Anyway…. that was the calculator game I made that I played with Terry Blevins for a while.
While other Power Plant Men were playing “Rope the Bull” with an Iron rendition of a bull welders had created, some of us in the electric shop were playing different kinds of games. Puzzles.
I think the reason that electricians like puzzles so much is because a lot of what they do from day-to-day is solve puzzles. When something isn’t functioning and the electrician has to figure out why, they usually have to follow through a bunch of steps in order to figure out what exactly went wrong. Solving Circuit problems are a lot like the puzzles we were playing.
Sometimes they are like “Word Searches” where you are looking for needles in the haystacks. Sometimes they are like Cryptograms where a circuit has been wired incorrectly and you have to figure out which wire is supposed to go where. Sometimes you get so frustrated that you just wish you could look in the back of the book at the answer page. In real life, you don’t always have an answer page exactly.
Some of us may think that you can find all you need to know in the Bible, but there are different kinds of “Bibles” for different kinds of jobs. In the Electric Shop we had the National Electric Code. We had the Master Blueprints that showed us how things were supposed to be wired up. Some times we just had to wing it and try putting words in crossword puzzle that we knew might not be the right ones, but they were the best we had at the time.
I’m just glad that I spent that time working puzzles with my friends at the Power Plant. If solving puzzles together helps build a team, then we had the best darn team around!
Because someone asked me about the game we played against the computer… Here is the play by play (for those who know how to read Chess Playing Geek Language):
I know I’m getting old when I pick up a small piece of paper and I am suddenly taken back 17 years to the day I pulled the small page from the Hunzicker Brothers Inc. Notepad sitting on the desk in the Electric Shop office. It was the day that I was finally able to come to the aid of a noble Power Plant Man that the plant generally referred to as “Stick”.
Gary McCain, or Stick, is a tall thin Power Plant Man (sort of like a stick) known for his intellect and knowledge of “Machine Language”. In this case, “Machine Language” refers to the ability to understand how machines work, not how to talk directly to computers using zeroes and ones.
Gary had just walked into the Electric Shop office at the power plant in North Central Oklahoma as lunch was ending. He was carrying a textbook, which seemed odd right off the bat. He explained that some of the machinists and mechanics had been sent to motor alignment school and they had been given this textbook in case they wanted to refer back to the material that was covered in the class.
Gary sat down next to me and set the book on the desk opening it to the page he had bookmarked (Yeah. We used to use books made out of paper, and we put pieces of paper between pages to bookmark the pages we wanted to remember… Bookmarking wasn’t something new with Internet browsers).
Gary (am I going to start all my paragraphs with the word “Gary”? Maybe the next paragraph, I’ll just say “That tall guy”) pointed to a formula on the page and asked me if it was possible to use the computer to make calculations that will help him align motors using this formula.
I told that tall guy (Gary) that we could use a program called “Excel” (from Microsoft) that could be used to solve problems just like that. So, I grabbed the small sheet of paper off of the Hunzicker Brothers Inc. notepad and wrote down the variables for the formula on one side, and the four formulas on the back side. Here is what I wrote:
Oh yeah. I think I ripped off the corner of the paper to use as a bookmark because I didn’t like the one Gary was using. It was too small.
I guess at this point I should stop and tell you what is meant by “motor alignment” and why machinists and mechanics are interested in this in the first place.
The alignment that is done with a motor is performed when you are putting a pump back in place or some other equipment like a gear box or fan shaft or… well… a lot of things. You have to make sure that the shaft on the motor is perfectly aligned with the pump otherwise it will quickly tear something up when you turn it on.
This picture shows how the motor is aligned up with the compressor so that the red coupling lines up perfectly. Once it is aligned the coupling can be bolted together to connect the motor to the pump.
Notice that the motor has bolts to mount it to the skid in the front and the back on both sides, as well as the pump. These are called “Feet”. Usually when you put the pump and the motor back in place, they don’t line up perfectly, so thin pieces of brass called “shims” are used to raise the various feet just the right amount so that the shaft on the motor and shaft on the pump are looking right at each other.
A special piece of equipment is used to check the alignment. It is called a “Dial Caliper” and it is mounted to the coupling on the motor and the pump with a magnet and it tests the alignment as it is rotated around.
I’m sorry if I’m boring those of you who don’t immediately see the beauty of Motor Alignment. Try pretending that the dial caliper is something invented by ancient aliens if you need to make this part of the post more interesting (actually, who needs ancient aliens when you have machinists?).
Gary told me that the company was looking into buying laser guided motor alignment machines for only $30,000 a piece. They would probably buy three of them that could be used between the four main plants. He said that he didn’t think we needed them if we could use these formulas to calculate exactly how to align the motors. This would save the company around $90,000 and at the same time show the mechanics the “joy of math”!
So, I made some notes on another page which simplified, (or maybe complicated) the formulas further. Then I sat down at the computer and began putting them into Excel. The idea was to have the person doing the motor alignment take some notes, then go to the computer and enter them into the Excel sheet and it would tell them right away how many shims to put under any of the 8 feet (four on the motor and four on the pump).
Here are the notes I made:
If you are Jesse Cheng (or some other old time calculator geek), you can see what I was doing with my notes. I was thinking of the next steps… which I’ll explain below…. (oh… ok… I’ll tell you… this is the code that you would use if you were creating a program for a Casio calculator).
After creating the spreadsheet, Gary headed out the door to go start aligning a motor using our newfangled motor alignment method. A little while later he came back into the shop and pulling out his handy dandy notepad he read off the notes he had taken while he put the values into Excel… When he was finished, he wrote down the results and headed back out the door to add the proper shims to the motor and the pump.
We had to tweak the program a little to work out the bugs, but after a couple of tries it worked very well and Gary was pleased. Only, there was one problem with this method… Over the next couple of weeks, Gary would come bursting into the electric shop office interrupting me and Charles Foster while we were having a deep discussion about the virtues of banana peppers on ham sandwiches.
So, I suggested to Gary that we could use a calculator to do the same thing that we were doing with the spreadsheet. That way he wouldn’t have to travel back and forth to the computer. Instead, he could just stand there at the motor and enter the information and have it display the answers that he was seeking.
Right off the bat (hmm… the second time I have used that “cliche”…. I need to read more often), Gary didn’t understand how a calculator could do this. So, I explained to him that some calculators are programmable and I can write a program on the calculator that would do just that. I said, “Let me show you”….. After all, I had grown up in Missouri (the Show Me State)… So, I took my calculator off of the top of the filing cabinet and placed it on the table.
I used the thermal printer to connect the calculator to the tape recorder to store my programs, so I didn’t have to enter them manually after I entered them once.
I took my notes and wrote the following program and entered it into the calculator.
I gave the calculator to Gary and showed him how to run the program and sent him to try it out for himself. He was very excited about this and offered some suggestions to make the program easier to use.
A few days later Gary caught me walking across the maintenance shop and showed me a catalog with various calculators for sale. He said he wanted to buy some calculators for the shop so that every person that had been trained to align motors had a calculator with a program on it. I showed him a Casio calculator that would work for about $70. So, he ordered a better one.
Even though the language for programming it was different than the Sharp calculator, it didn’t take long for me to write a program for it that did the same thing since I had sort of already written it by that time. After Gary proved to his foreman that the calculator worked, he ordered several more and when they arrived he asked me if I could program them as well.
It took almost a half hour just to type the program into each calculator, so I bought a small pigtail that connected two calculators together. This allowed me to copy the program from one calculator to another one. So, when Gary arrived one day with a box of over 20 calculators for the rest of the plants, it took me longer to open the packages than it did to copy the program from one calculator to the next.
Since the calculator was a graphic calculator, I thought about improving the program by drawing a little picture of a motor shaft and a pump shaft and showing how they were out of alignment after the information was entered, but I never took the time to do that as I was on to another computer project by that time (which I will write about later).
So, think about this. The company was willing to buy $90,000 worth of laser-guided motor alignment equipment to do something that machinists and mechanics already knew how to do. The specialized equipment would work, and it might have been faster I suppose. With the aid of a programmable calculator, however, a mechanic can stand at the motor, takes a few measurements and come up with the same results probably just as fast as the laser-guided motor alignment gizmo could do it.
Either way, the mechanic still had to install the same number of shims under the same feet whether they used the calculator and the dial caliper or the laser beam. The 26 or so calculators that were purchased for the four plants came up to less than $2,000, which is a savings of $88,000. I don’t think the laser would have saved that much time. It still had to be carried over to the motor and plugged in and mounted on the motor. My guess is that as soon as the laser was dropped on the floor accidentally, it would have been broken anyway.
The best part of this little project was that I was able to help out a True Power Plant Man Gary McCain, that I hadn’t really had the opportunity to help much before. Gary didn’t need much help as he is one of those Power Plant Men that people seek out when they need advice. So, when he came to me and asked for help with the computer, I was more than glad to do what I could to help him.
Sometimes it is a little difficult for my wife to understand why I keep scraps of paper laying around that have meaningless scribbles on them. One might be a doodle that some friend of mine created one day while talking on the phone. Another might be a fortune from a cookie that I opened when I was eating lunch with a coworker. Today the piece of paper I picked up happened to have a mathematical formula written on the back.
I think my son understands now that when I seem to be picking up trash off of the table and a tear comes to my eye, it isn’t because I have just picked up something rotten, but because I have just been transported back in time to place where I am with some people that I love. It doesn’t stop him from saying, “Dad? It’s just a piece of paper. Geez!” Well… I know I’m getting old… but that scrap of paper is poetry to me.
Many years ago in my earlier days as a Power Plant Electrician while working on Relays at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, Ben Davis, a plant electrician and True Power Man introduced me to one of his favorite Rock and Roll Bands, the “Dire Straits”. One of their hit songs is “Money For Nothing.” About 14 years later, the Power Plant Men learned exactly how to make “Money For Nothing” and other “Money Matters”!
Albert Einstein was once asked what the greatest miracle known to man is, and he replied “Compound Interest”.
One day at the Power Plant our timekeeper Linda Shiever invited a Financial Planner to come to the plant and talk to the Power Plant Men about the importance of planning ahead for your retirement. This may have been the first time many of the Power Plant Men had ever heard of such a thing as “Compound Interest”.
To a Power Plant Man, “Compound Interest” sounds more like “paying close attention when you pound something with a sledge hammer”.
The Financial Planner explained to the Power Plant Men that it is important to begin planning for the future early in your life. He gave us a sheet of paper titled “Put the Magic of compounding to work for you.” It showed how someone 25 years old investing in the stock market (S&P 500 which averages 10% annually over time) by putting $2,000 in something that gives you a 10% return for 8 years, and then stops, while another person waits 8 years until they are 33 and spends the rest of their life putting $2,000 into the same stock market they will never have as much as the person who only put in $2000 for 8 years beginning when they were 25 years old.
Let me explain this a little more: Using compound interest at 10% rate for his example (since that is what you receive in the S&P 500 over time), he showed that the person that invested $16,000 beginning at 25 years old and adding $2000 each year for only 8 years will have a net earnings of over $1,000,000 by the time they are 71 years old. Yet the person that waited 8 years and invested $78,000 by adding $2,000 each year until they are 71 will only have a net earnings of $800,000. The importance was that compound interest works best when you start early.
This is a great lesson to learn. The problem was that the majority of the audience was already well over 40 years old. There may have been one person in the room that was 25 years old, and that was only because they weren’t telling the truth about their age.
On Friday, September 6, 1996 a group of us from the plant were told to show up at a hotel conference room not far from corporate headquarters to attend a meeting that was called “Money Matters”. The other phrase they used to describe the meeting was that it was a “Root Learning” class. The reason it was called Root Learning was because the company that put the class together for the Electric Company was called Root Learning.
When we arrived, we were told which table we were going to sit. Bruce Scambler was the leader of the table where I was appointed to sit. When we were assigned seats, it was in a way that the Power Plant Men were spread out across the tables, so that we were each sitting with people from other departments in the company. I supposed right away that this was so that we could maximize the spread the Power Plant culture to others.
This turned out to be a class about how the company has problems that need to be resolved. When the class began the leader placed a poster in the middle of the table. It showed a picture of a canyon. The workers were on one side and the leaders were on the other with the managers stuck in the middle. It was very similar to this picture:
This was an ingenious representation of the problems the company had with the management structure. The poster we had was customized for our particular company.
We talked for a couple of hours about how we could bridge the gap between management and the workers. What were some of the barriers in the tornado that kept destroying those bridges…. etc.
The following year on September 24, 1997, we attended another meeting in Enid Oklahoma where we learned about Shareholder value. The leader of my table this year was a young man from HR at Corporate Headquarters (I’ll mention this guy in a later post). This topic made more sense as it really did talk about Money this time. This time the maps they showed us had race cars on it which showed the different competing electric companies. Something like this:
Being the main electric company in the state, our truck was on the Regulated track. Some of the electric providers had figured out a way to go the unregulated route. Our company kept looking for ways to get on the unregulated road by offering other services that were not regulated. After looking at the poster that looked similar to the one above for a while and talking about it, we moved on to the next poster:
Even though the chart is the main part of this picture, most of the discussion took place around the “Expense Street” section in the picture. There was an added pie chart that was on a card that was placed on this street which showed how the expenses of the company were broken down.
The main expense for the company was Fuel. I want to say that it was close to 40% of expenses. Taxes was the next largest expense for the company. It made up somewhere around 30% of our total expenses. The rest of the expenses were the other costs to run the company. Employee wages made up around 8% of the total expenses for the company.
It was the job of the leader at the table to explain that the cost for fuel was pretty well fixed, so we can’t do anything about that. We also can’t do anything about how much taxes the company pays. We didn’t have control over the supplies and other costs the company buys. So, the bottom line was that the little sliver of expenses for the company that represented “Employee Wages” was really the only thing we can adjust to increase shareholder value…..
What? Run that one by me again? We were a 3 billion dollar revenue company. We had around 3,000 employees which we had reduced to around 2000 employees when the Corporation Commission cut how much we could charge for electricity, and now you’re saying that the only way to keep the company afloat is to “adjust” employee wages because 92% of everything else it “out-of-bounds”? I think you can see why we spent a lot of time discussing this… This turned into a pretty lively discussion.
Learning about the “Time Value of Money” can be very helpful. I had a financial calculator that I kept at the plant. One day one of the Power Plant Men came to me and asked me to figure out how they could buy a Harley Davidson Motorcycle. Earl Frazier said that he could only afford something like $230 per month and the wanted to buy this motorcycle. How would he do that? The motorcycle cost something like $38,000 or more. I don’t remember the exact details.
Sounds complicated doesn’t it? How does a Power Plant Man buy a Harley Davidson for only $230.00 per month with only a four year loan? Earl had heard that I knew all about the “Time Value of Money” and that if there was a way, I would be able to tell him how to do it. His parameters were that the cost of the motorcycle was $38,000 (I’m just guessing as I don’t remember the exact amounts), and he could only pay $230 each month.
Well. Even with a no interest loan, it would take over 13 years to pay for the motorcycle. So, my only option for solving this problem was to pull out my financial calculator:
This calculator allowed me to find the monthly payment quickly for a loan at a specific interest rate over a specific number of months. So, I worked backward from that point. I told Earl to come back in a couple of hours and I would let him know his options.
When Earl returned, I had his answer…. I told him this…. Each month he needed to begin putting his $230.00 into an annual CD at the bank for 5% (yeah… they had those at that time). In two and a half years, he would stop doing that. And just put his money in his regular checking account. Then 9 months later, he takes the money in his checking account and buys the Harley Davidson. This way he would put 10% down up front (because CDs would have been rolling into his account also).
Then, each month, as his CDs became available, he would roll part of them back into another year, leaving out a certain amount each time to supplement the $230.00 he would still be paying each month for his motorcycle, since his payments would be significantly higher than that. Then exactly after 4 years, he would have used up all of the money in his account just as he would be paying off his motorcycle. This would only work if he could get a loan for the motorcycle that charged 3.7% interest rate or less which was a reasonable rate at the time.
Earl responded by saying, “You mean I will have to wait 3 years before I can buy the motorcycle?!?!” Yeah. That was the bottom line… and by the end of it all, he would have to pay for the motorcycle over a 7 year period when it came down to it. He wasn’t too happy about having to wait, but that was the only way he could do it for $230 monthly payments.
Here is a side story… A few years later when I went to work for Dell, we also had Root Learning classes there as well. Here is one of the posters we used during the class:
In this picture, Dell is the big boat at the top. When I walked into the class I recognized the style of the poster right off the bat. Oh! Root Learning! This will be fun. These types of classes were a fun way to express the realities of the business and the obstacles they have to overcome to achieve their goals.
I still remember the leader at our table 13 years later. His name is Jonah Vaught. I worked with him about 5 years after that class. I acted like I knew him, and I could tell that he was wondering where we had met. So, I finally told him…. “You were the group leader when we were doing that Money Matters class back in 2002.”
End of Side story….
Now when I listen to the Dire Straits’ song “Money For Nothing” (like Paul Harvey’s “Rest of the Story”) you know what goes through my mind… First sitting in the switchgear working on relays with Ben Davis listening to Rock and Roll on the radio (see the post: “Relay Tests and Radio Quizzes with Ben Davis“).
Secondly, I remember the Power Plant Men learning the “Time Value of Money” in a fun way that kept them interested.
Thirdly, I remember Charles Lay finally realizing when he was 63 years old that he was going to have to work the rest of his life because he hadn’t been saving for retirement…. See the post “Pain in the Neck Muskogee Power Plant Relay Testing“). Some times when you learn about the Time Value of Money…. it’s too late to do anything about it because time has already run out.
The first time I saw Ray Eberle was during my first summer as a summer help in 1979. He was standing in the midst of a group of mechanics who sat around him as school children sit around the librarian as a story is being read. Ray was telling a story to a group of mesmerized Power Plant Men.
Many years later I heard that Ray was invited to tell stories to hunters who were hunting elk in Montana around the campfires at night as an occupation. I think he passed on that opportunity. Who would think of leaving the comfort of a Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to go sit around telling stories by campfires in Montana?
For many years I didn’t have the opportunity to work with Ray. He had joined the Safety Task Force that we had created at the plant. He had also become a member of the Confined Space Rescue Team, and was a HAZWOPER Emergency Rescue responder. I was on all of these teams with Ray, but I really had never worked side-by-side with him.
I know that at times, I had disappointed Ray by not living up to his expectations of what a True Power Plant Man should be. When we were on the Safety Task Force, after the reorganization, we had shifted gears to be more of an “Idea” task force instead of one that actually fixed safety issues. I was pushing hard to have the company move to a “Behavior-Based Safety” approach. It was a misunderstood process and if not implemented correctly would have the exact opposite effect (see the post “ABCs of Power Plant Safety“)
I know this bothered Ray. He let me know one day when I received an intra-company envelope with a memo in it. It said that he was resigning from the team:
I hang on to the oddest things. Some things that lift me up and some things that break my heart. I figure that there is a lesson for me in this memo. That is why I have held onto it for the past 20 years. I suppose this enforces my philosophy of trying to make a “Bad First Impression” (See the post: “Power Plant Art of Making a Bad First Impression“).
Ray Eberle told me once that he had always thought that I was a lazy stuck up electrician that didn’t like to get dirty and just sat around in the electric shop all the time. (read the post: “Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint“) He said that he saw me as a “higher than thou” type of person that looked down on others. Then one day I said something that totally changed his perception of me. I said, “Don’t get twisted.”
It’s funny to learn sometimes what people actually think of you. Then it’s even funnier to think what makes them change their mind. You see… when Ray Eberle was sharing his thoughts about me, we had become very good friends. He said that he felt that he finally understood me when I uttered those three words “Don’t get twisted.”
I remember the moment I had said that. As members of the Confined Space Rescue Team, we were responsible for inspecting the SCBAs (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus) each month. We were standing in the control room and had a couple of the SCBAs sitting out while the instructor was showing us the proper way to inspect them.
Ray had asked a few “what-if” questions (like “What if the pressure is right at the minimum amount?” or “What if we send a tank off to be refilled and we have an emergency?”) and his questions weren’t being answered. He was getting a little hot under the collar, so I said, “Don’t get twisted.”
I remember Ray’s reaction. He turned to me and said, “What did you say?” I looked him straight in the eye with a grin on my face and repeated “Don’t get twisted.”
At that moment I didn’t know if Ray was going to haul off and belt me one, so I was mentally preparing my various responses…. like…. get ready to duck… just try to stand there as if nothing had happened… run and call a therapist because my ego had been shattered (no… wait… that wasn’t then)…. Anyway… instead Ray just smiled at me and said calmly, “I thought that was what you had said.” I could see that he was in deep thought.
It was a couple of years later that I found out that at that moment Ray Eberle’s perception of who I was had done a 180. Isn’t it funny what causes someone to change their mind sometimes? Maybe he saw a spot of dirt on my tee shirt.
One day during the spring of 1998 my foreman, Alan Kramer told me that Jim Arnold wanted me to be assigned to create “Task Lists” in SAP.
Task lists are instructions on how to perform jobs associated with trouble tickets. Jim Arnold (probably to keep me out of trouble) had assigned me to write task lists and Ray Eberle to write Bill of Materials (or BOMs). Thus began our three year journey together working side-by-side entering data into the computer.
Writing task lists didn’t mean that I just sat in front of the computer all day. In order to create them, I had to find out what tools a person would use to fix something, and what procedure they would perform in order to do their job. This meant that a lot of times, I would go up to a crew that was working on something and I would ask them to tell me all the tools they used and how they did their job while standing at the job site.
I will write another post later about how I actually did the task of writing task lists, so I won’t go into any more detail. After a short while, Ray and I figured out that we needed to be in the front office close to the Master Prints and the room where the “X-Files” (or X-drawings) were kept.
X-Files didn’t have to do with “Aliens”. X-Files were files in cabinets that had all the vendor information about every piece of equipment at the plant (just about). They were called X Files because their filing numbers all began with an X. Like X-160183.
About 50% of my time for the next three years was spent creating task lists. The rest of the time, I was still doing my regular electrician job, and going to school. After the first year, I moved into the Master Print Room and Ray and I set up shop working on the computers next to each other.
Ray was a collector of Habanero Sauce bottles.
He would travel the country looking for unique Habanero Sauce bottles. Each day, Ray would bring a bottle of habanero sauce to work and pour some on his lunch.
I ate the same boring lunch every day. It consisted of a ham sandwich with a slice of American cheese. Then I had some kind of fruit, like an apple or an orange. Since I was no longer eating lunch in the electric shop where Charles would give me peppers with my sandwich, when Ray asked me if I would like some hot sauce for my sandwich I was quick to give it a try.
There is something very addictive about habanero sauce. After a few days of having this sauce on my sandwich, I went to the grocery store and bought some of my own bottles of habanero sauce and salsa.
Ok. One side story…
I was sitting at home reading a school book at the dining room table, my 9 year old daughter Elizabeth walked up to the table and took a tortilla chip from my paper plate, dipped it in the (habanero) salsa in the bowl next to it, and began to put it in her mouth. Without looking up from my book, I said, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
Thinking that I meant that she shouldn’t be stealing my chips, she went ahead and put it in her mouth. Grinning because she had stolen my chip, she began to walk away. Then she started to squeal a little. Moments later she was hopping all over the kitchen trying to find some way to put out the fire.
I told her the best remedy is to eat more chips. Don’t drink water. It makes it worse. Eat chips without salsa.
End of side story…
I mentioned above that Ray Eberle is a very good storyteller. He told me a series of stories that I call the “Walt Oswalt Stories”. These were real life stories about a Power Plant Man at our plant. They were so funny that I would go home and share them with my wife and she would fold over laughing at them. She said that Ray needs to write a book about Walt Oswalt.
I have shared some of these stories with various people in my later career and the reaction is always the same. These stories belong in a book. Later this year, I will share some of the Walt Oswalt stories in a post or two then you will see what I’m talking about.
One time in 2007 when I worked for Dell, I was meeting with the CEO of the world’s leading timekeeping company called Kronos. His name is Aron Ain.
My director, Chris Enslin was with us in Massachusetts.
Aron had taken us out to eat dinner, and Chris asked me to tell Aron some Walt Oswalt stories, so I shared a couple.
Then a couple of years later in 2009, Chris told me that he was at a meeting with CEOs from companies all over the United States, and there was Aron standing in the middle of a group of CEOs telling them a Walt Oswalt story.
Here is a picture of Ray Eberle sitting next to me at our computers in the master print room at the power plant:
Each day at lunch, after we had eaten our sandwiches, Ray would reach into his lunch box and pull out a worn black book and begin reading it. He would spend about 10 to 15 minutes reading. Sometimes he would stop and tell me something interesting about something he had just read. When he was done, the book went back into his lunch box and we continued working.
I remember some of the interesting conversations we used to have about that worn black book in his lunch box. One time we talked about a story in the book about how a hand just appeared out of nowhere and began writing on a wall when this guy named Belshazzar was having a party. Then this guy named Daniel came and told him what it meant, and that night Belshazzar was killed. Ray said, “…. God sent the hand that wrote the inscription.” What do you think about that? My response was…. “Yeah. God sure has class. He could have just struck the guy down right there and then. Instead he has a hand appear and write something on the wall. That way we can now have the saying: The writing on the wall’.”
I always thought if you were going to pick a good friend to have, if you pick one that reads their Bible every day during lunch, they are bound to be trustworthy. I could tell that I could trust Ray with anything. So, I spent the three years with Ray telling him everything I knew about myself while Ray shared a good deal of his life story with me. Of course… being nine and a half years older than I was, he had lived a lot more life than I had.
When I left the Power Plant in 2001 to work for Dell, one of the things I missed the most was sitting next to Ray talking about our lives, eating our lunch with Habanero Sauce, and listening to Ray’s stories about Prominent Power Plant Men! I have considered Ray a very dear friend for many years and I am honored to have him take me into his confidence. I only hope that I could be as much of a friend to Ray as he has been to me.
One of the most exhilarating moments a Power Plant Man may experience is when, while wearing a pair of high voltage gloves, they crank the handle of a High Voltage Switch closed in a substation. The booming sound of the electricity crackling overhead and the echoing off of the hills and trees a mile away comes rumbling back! I never could understand why the training required to be a certified substation switchman had to be the most boring class a Power Plant Man had to sit through.
I remember when I was a young, every child had their own trampoline in their bedroom. When your mom or dad confined you to your room, you could always find entertainment by jumping on the bed. Then throwing up the blanket and letting it fall in a way that created a big blanket bubble, then you could plop yourself down in the middle as the mushroomed bed sheet burped the air out.
Once when I was young, my dad took my brother and I to Saint Louis because he was attending a meeting. He was in the meeting most of the day, as we stayed in the hotel room. This was back when you didn’t have 24 hour cable TV. The day whizzed by as my brother and I jumped around between the two beds. Leaping as high as we could, and pouncing from one bed to the other. When our dad arrived after a day in meetings, he didn’t find a couple of young boys staring at the walls, he found two worn out kids who had just had one of the funnest days we could remember…. being cooped up in a hotel room all day long.
Contrast that to the first time I attended Substation Switchman Certification training.
The instructor explained at the beginning of the day long class that he was required to read through the company policies and procedures on substation switching before we were allowed to take the test. There were a number of procedures that were practically duplicates of each other, so we had to listen to the same boring documents being read to us over and over again throughout the day. This didn’t include just the switching procedures in the switchyard. It also included the clearance procedures required before and after the switching has occurred.
Six hours later, I thought my eyelids had grown little lead weights on the end of every eyelash (and if you have ever seen how many eyelashes I have, you would know how serious of a situation this was).
That wasn’t the worst of it. Switchman training back then was required every two years. Think about this. I was an electrician for 18 years. During that time, I had to take Switchman training 7 times! Each time the instructor had to read the entire text of the switchman policies and procedures. Think of the most boring lecture or sermon you ever had to sit through, then multiply it by six, and you will understand the agony we had to endure each time to receive the Certified Switchman card for our wallets.
During the summer of 1995, after we had downsized to where we only had 7 electricians at the large coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma, we decided we needed to train more operators to be switchman. After all, they had the clearance part down already, and basically did lower voltage switching in the switchgears. It made a lot of sense.
We told the switchman trainer that we wanted to add some hands-on practical training to the course to try to make training more exciting. Andy Tubbs, the foreman who was also an electrician and long time switchman, worked to arrange it so that we could have the operators switch out a section of the substation after they had learned the boring part of their training.
After an entire day of sitting in a classroom. The switchmen trainees had a real life opportunity to watch and experience switching out a real section of the substation. They could wear the high voltage gloves and open the switches.
We also took switching orders and added some errors to them, and asked the students to review the orders to see if they would approve the switching before they went to the substation and to make any corrections necessary. This is one of the steps a switchman is required to do before going out to switch. They have to review each step of the switching and approve them.
Two years later in 1997, I was asked to go to Oklahoma City and become certified as a Switchman Trainer. I remember going to the training center just north of Norman Oklahoma where I met our instructor, Harry McRee. He was a trainer in his early 50’s. He had been a safety trainer for years.
Harry explained to us that he would like to make the switchman training more interesting, but the company’s requirements demanded that all of the documentation be read through entirely every time a person was re-certified. Since the documentation took most of the day to read, his hands were sort of tied when it came to making the class more interesting.
To give you an idea… here is how many steps it takes just to take a clearance on a breaker in a plant…. We had to review each step of the process:
As a side note… In 1993, I had received a Masters in Religious Education from Loyola University in New Orleans. My emphasis was on Adult Education. So, when I went back to the plant and began developing the class for our plant, I thought I should be able to come up with some way to make the class more interesting.
I also thought that if it was possible for a couple of kids to keep themselves entertained all day just with a couple of beds in a hotel room, then something should be able to be done to make this ultra-boring class, more entertaining.
Since I was the “computer person” at the plant, I decided that I would use my computer as a learning aid. I went to our substations and took pictures of everything I could find, so I could add them to a PowerPoint Project. PowerPoint was fairly new at the time, so I decided to dazzle the class with animated fly-ins and popups, and cool transitions. I also consolidated the various documents so that I wasn’t repeating myself throughout the day. I brought my computer from home and set it up in the conference room.
I also employed my daughter Elizabeth to help me. I figured if she could teach some of the training, and the students could see that even a seven year old can learn this, then maybe they would be a little more interested. I had recently bought a new Ball Camera for my computer. It was a new thing to have a camera on your computer. They weren’t really used for things like Skype back then, since you only had 28,800 baud modems, which doesn’t give you very much bandwidth. So needless to say. No one in the room knew what that little white ball was.
I had my daughter dress up in one of my wife’s lab coats and wear over-sized glasses to give her the look of a teacher. Then we created a number of short film clips that gave specific instructions. Here are a few screenshots from the short videos we made:
At any moment her video would come flying in and she would often say….. “Look Class! I know this is boring, but you HAVE to learn it!”
She would also fly in and say, “Pay Attention! This is on the test!”
There were still a couple of videos that the switchmen-in-training had to watch that were boring, especially since we had all watched them many times in our careers. I knew that during the videos, many would be falling asleep, so, I took my ball camera with me and kept it sitting on the table while we went through the training. No one really knew what it was.
While we were watching the first boring video, I sat looking at my computer monitor, which no one in the room could see. What I was doing was acting like I wasn’t paying any attention to anyone when I really was. I had the ball camera in my hand. I was looking for anyone who was dozing off. Then I would take a movie clip of them nodding off. Some fighting to keep their eyes open. Others leaning way back in their chair with their mouth hanging wide open fast asleep.
I took the movie clips and put them about 5 slides later in the next section we were going to cover. Just when they were ready to be bored from the next section of the class, I would present a slide to them with movie clips of them sleeping during the videos and Elizabeth would slide in from the bottom of the slide and say, “Look Class! I know this is boring, but you HAVE to learn it!”
That was the clincher. Once they realized that I had taken movie clips of them sleeping in the class just a few minutes earlier, they were all wide awake the rest of the day. No one dared to nod off again. It worked great! When the second video was playing, you can be sure that everyone in the room was wide-eyed and wide awake.
When it came to the part where they took their test, they could use any notes they had taken. Since Elizabeth had popped in and notified them about the parts that were going to be on the test, they were all prepared. Here is a copy of the test they took:
Isn’t it funny that back then, you regularly used your Social Security Number for things like this? We wouldn’t think of doing that today.
Later, after the class was over, Harry McRee, the trainer that had trained me in Oklahoma City, had heard how I had made the class interesting. So, he called me and asked if he could come out to our plant and see what I had done. When he arrived I showed him all my material and gave him a copy of the PowerPoint and videos. I told him he was free to use them however he wanted.
Because of this, I was asked to train the Power Plant Man in some other areas including general Windows training. When a job to be the “official” trainer opened up at the plant, I applied for it…. but that is a topic for another post.